Catastrophic drought in Brazil’s Amazonas state threats sustainable production that keeps forest standing

Drought compromises navigation; isolation of fishing communities may harm 500,000 people -and it’s only beginning

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | Lábrea (AM) |
The Piranha Lake, Amazonas state, recorded fish deaths caused by extreme heat and drought. - Chico Batata

Amid an extreme drought in Paraná do Itaúba water stream located in the town of Maraã, Amazonas state, a boat full of tambaqui – a fish that is part of the daily diet of people living in the Amazonian region – goes slowly, detouring from dry twigs that dominate the steam banks. 

Suddenly, the route is interrupted when a wooden boat grounds on a sandbank. At the risk of losing the cargo, the crew sees no alternative but to jump into the water and dig the bottom of the stream to continue their journey.

Dramatic situations like this are happening more frequently in Amazonas state, where widespread drought has been dramatically reducing river levels and threats to impact fishing and sustainable agriculture in the Amazonas River basin, the world's largest basin. 

The phenomenon, which may last until the beginning of 2023, is affecting hundreds of communities, which lost access to lakes where fish such as pirarucu and tambaqui are sustainably managed, preventing the depletion of natural resources.

In the community of Monte das Oliveiras, located in the town of Fonte Boa, Amazonas state, 16 families are almost totally isolated. Tomé Coelho, one of the residents, said to Brasil de Fato that he closed the doors of his small market due to not being able to provide clients with the products that come from the urban area of the town. 

“This became hard to go or come from the city [the urban area]. People here in the community are suffering a lot with the consequences [of the drought] due to not being able to buy food now. When someone manages to go there, the boat is a small one. Now, we can only navigate in small boats,” Coelho explained.

Milcy Cordeiro de Carvalho, 53, said he never lived in such a situation before. She heads a sustainable fishing agreement in Maraã (Amazonas state) that provides for 135 families without harming the environment. Pirarucu, the families’ main source of income, is inaccessible.

 “It’s affecting us because everything is dry. The transport area was shut down, precisely where we used to fish pirarucu. Right now, we cannot fish it. By now, we have to wait for the river levels to rise,” she said. 

Prolonged drought kills fish and causes landslides

Reports about isolated areas and food shortages add to the catastrophic images of recent days. A river dweller community 170 km far from Amazonas capital city, Manaus, was engulfed by a crater following the collapse of a ravine. Two people died and 300 were directly affected by the tragedy. 

Also in an area neighboring Manaus, thousands of fish were floating dead on the surface of Piranha Lake. Residents said that the water is unfit for consumption. In Tefé Lake, 500 km far from Manaus, over 120 botos – an Amazon River dolphin – were found dead after the water reached 40 degrees Celsius, a record high. 

“The first consequence is product shortages,” says Ayan Fleischmann, a researcher at Mamirauá Institute in Tefé. “It happens due to these large vessels that cannot navigate the Solimões River. Besides shortages, it also causes product prices to rise.”

The Solimões River, part of the Amazonas River – the world’s largest river – is becoming dry. Large vessels, which transport food from the capital city to the countryside, aren’t able to navigate. 

The town of Tefé, a large urban center in one of the most preserved areas of the Amazon, attracts riverside dwellers and Indigenous people in search of health, banking and education services.

“The population is not accessing services. The kids aren’t going to school for a long time, and we are not managing to buy food as we need to,” said the researcher. 

Drought just in the beginning


Experts say the extreme drought and heat are caused by the combination of two factors: El Niño, a natural climate phenomenon that warms the waters of the Pacific Ocean, and global warming, caused by human action.

“There is a high probability that El Niño will continue in the coming months and even into next year. It indicates that it is becoming more intense, and the effects that normally occur with El Niño may worsen. Therefore, the tendency is for the drought to worsen in the Amazonas state,” says Ane Alencar, the director of Science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam, in Portuguese).

“In Amazonas, the biggest drought ever recorded was in 2010, when there was the same climate scenario. The extremely hot northern tropical Atlantic and part of the hot Pacific and Atlantic are generating this catastrophe,” explains Ayan Fleischmann.

The Amazonas state government declared a state of emergency in 55 of its 62 municipalities. The estimate is that half a million people will be affected in the coming months.

“In disaster management, the right thing is to promote a culture of prevention, a culture of risk, educating people about risk and thinking about how we will adapt to these new situations we are experiencing,” says Ayan Fleischmann, from the Mamirauá Institute.

“Therefore, the current lack of prevention or adaptation policies to climate change is obviously greatly missed. There is no well-established policy in Brazil, neither at federal, state nor municipal level,” he added.

Edited by: Nadini Lopes e Rodrigo Durão Coelho